Cal baseball coach David Esquer stood beneath a bright blue sky, a gentle breeze stirring the senses and a February sun enticing the soul. Behind him, his players prepared for what they now understood to be the final season in a program that dates back to 1892.

"My emotions are, obviously disappointed, angry," Esquer said. "The heartbreaking part is it took us a long time to build the program to be a playoff contender on a yearly basis. And that's what we are."

Behind the left field fence, enormous graphic depictions of Cal greats adorned the gray walls of the Recreational Sports Facility. Chuck Hensley. Rod Booker. Lance Blankenship, who won a ring with the 1989 Oakland A's.

Behind the right field wall stood a scoreboard dedicated to George Wolfman, who coached the team to a national championship in 1957. Down the right field line? That would be the Carl J. Van Heuit Training Center, built courtesy of a big-hearted football safety who became one of Cal's big-money donors.

To say nothing of the Jeff Kent batting cages and Stuart Gordon bullpens.

"We have made it known to our players that we are representing an entity far greater than just this team," Esquer said. "This program's been around for over 100 years. We let them know that how they conduct themselves and the type of team we have here, there's a lot of people sticking their necks out on their behalf. And opening their wallets."

It takes a community to raise a baseball program. A committee is all that's required to shutter one. According to Cal officials, not enough wallets were opened wide enough to save all five athletic programs designated for extinction last September. Lacrosse, women's gymnastics and rugby were granted reprieves Friday. Baseball and men's gymnastics were not.

"I don't think it ends here," Esquer said. "I do believe that at some point Cal baseball will be resurrected. It will come back."

You couldn't begrudge the man a happy thought on such a depressing day. Yet it was difficult to share his optimism. For one thing, the more this story plays out, the more it begins to smell like the hidden ball trick.

For example: Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said during a conference call with reporters Friday that he warned boosters and donors 16 months ago that cuts might be necessary.

"It didn't trickle down to the head coach of the baseball team," Esquer said. "No development officers ever came to us and said, 'There's a problem here.' Because I feel like the (financial) support we've raised now, we could have had that months earlier."

School officials said baseball didn't come close to raising the $8 million needed to sustain the program until a self-sustaining endowment could be put in place. Esquer thought a total of $25 million was being sought to save all five programs.

"We were led to believe it would be all (programs reinstated) or none," he said.

When did he first hear the $8 million figure?

"Today," he said.

Still, Esquer clung to his belief that the baseball team might one day be revived and said he was told it could happen conceivably as early as 2012-13, presuming adequate funding. To which we would add: better sooner than later.

Reason being: Evans Diamond is a soothing green oasis in the middle of an urban university campus starving for usable acreage. Both Birgeneau and athletic director Sandy Barbour danced around the prospect of the diamond one day being used for nonathletic purposes. They did nothing to dissuade the notion that Cal baseball, should it take too long to rise from the ashes, might not have a place to call home.

Thus the events of Friday seemed to have an oppressive weight to them. There was the weight of history. The weight of impending loss. The weight of achievement forestalled and friendships prematurely interrupted.

The weight of anger.

"Did the university let us down?" sophomore shortstop Tony Renda asked, repeating a question. "Sure."

And defiance.

"If it's going to be the last year at this point in time," Esquer said, "we feel we can give them a hell of a team. We have that pipe dream of ending up in Omaha and saying, 'Doesn't that look bad that you have a College World Series team, and they don't have a place to play next year?' "

You know what they say about one man's dream being a certain committee's nightmare.

Contact Gary Peterson at gpeterson@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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